The Startling Accident That Led Jacques Pépin To Skyrocketing Success

By 1974, Jacques Pépin was already quite a success. He had cooked for French presidents, helped innovate fast food service for Howard Johnson's, opened a successful soup restaurant in Manhattan, and was renovating an old house on a hill in the Catskills of upstate New York. He'd been a chef practically his whole life, cooking professionally since the age of 13, but it was this year that an event threatened the bright future of this French-American emigré.

While driving home along a route he'd taken many times, Pépin collided with a deer, after which his car spun off the road, flipped, and crashed into a ravine. The accident left Pépin with severe, even life-threatening injuries; he had 14 fractures, a broken back, broken hips, a pelvis broken in two places, and two broken arms. Pépin's left arm was so damaged that the doctors seriously considered amputating it.

Pépin recovered from his injuries despite the seemingly impossible odds, but the crash had taken its toll. Pépin was left with a left arm inches shorter than his right and lacking the standing stamina that he used to have. But this adversity only seemed to spur the chef on, as the accident, severe as it was, set Pépin on a course that would change his life and lead him to even greater success.

'I wasn't supposed to walk again'

Writing for Food & Wine, Pépin said, "I wasn't supposed to walk again ... [and] couldn't withstand the 12 hours a day behind the stove that a professional chef had to endure." No longer able to do what he had built his career around, Pépin turned down another avenue. Pépin began to write — a choice he says "could have been seen as a failure," but it "turned into a lifetime of opportunities [he] never could have imagined."

He had published a cookbook before the accident in 1967 and appeared in the magazine House Beautiful, but he quickly saw after the accident this would be foundational for him going forward. Not wasting any time, Pépin published another cookbook a year later, followed shortly by the landmark 1976 publication of "La Technique." As he became well-known for this work, he also began teaching around the country. In the 1980s, he appeared in his first public television cooking series and went on to star in several more, each with a companion cookbook. He later became a Dean of the French Culinary Institute, today known as the International Culinary Center. 

And as fans know, that is merely the tip of the iceberg. With the massive social media success he saw as folks found his extensive back catalog during the pandemic and last year's publication of "Art of the Chicken," this octogenarian shows no plans of slowing down.